Dec/04
Matthew C. Hunter

An Engine, Not a Camera: Photography in/as the History of Combustion

In late 1862, a curator from London’s Patent Museum named Francis Pettit Smith traveled to Birmingham on a collecting mission. Seeking to acquire a prototype of James Watt’s steam engine from the Soho manufactory established by Matthew Boulton in the mid-1760s, Smith unearthed an unusual set of chemo-mechanical images. With these images, Smith made a daring intervention as much into the imagining of Enlightenment industrial history as to consolidating narratives of photography’s origins. Claiming the images (then identifiable as replicas after paintings by Angelika Kauffman, Benjamin West and other leading, Georgian Academicians) as photographs, Smith moved the medium’s invention from the 1820s/30s back to Birmingham in the final decades of the eighteenth century. Smith’s intervention was convincing to many leading photographers in the 1860s; but, it found its greatest opponent in Matthew Piers Watt Boulton, grandson of the Soho industrialist. Boulton’s antagonism is surprising on many levels. Not only did he effectively destroy Smith’s story, but Boulton simultaneously integrated the curator’s chemo-mechanical findings into his own aircraft designs. This paper argues that, far from being some red herring fished from the depths of photo-lore, these contested, material appropriations of eighteenth-century chemical experiments by Smith and Boulton help to foreground an inconvenient (if strangely forgotten) truth: the extensive imbrication between what has come to count as “photography” and combustion-engine research. What happens, this paper asks, when we stop talking about “photography” and, instead, re-examine its putative early history by thinking the combustion chamber, the applied camera obscura, and the extraction-industry-derived chemicals binding them all together?

Matthew C. Hunter

Associate Professor, McGill Art History & Communication Studies

Matthew C. Hunter’s research explores interfaces between physical materials and cognitive processes—between making and knowing. In 2016-17, Hunter was a National Endowment for the Humanities Long-Term Fellow at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. There, he completed a book manuscript entitled “Painting with Fire: The Temporally Evolving Chemical Objects in the British Enlightenment.” He has also recently edited and contributed to a special issue of Grey Room entitled “Liquid Intelligence and the Aesthetics of Fluidity.” Author of Wicked Intelligence: Visual Art and the Science of Experiment in Restoration London (University of Chicago Press, 2013) and The Clever Object(Wiley, 2013; co-edited with Francesco Lucchini), Hunter is an editor of Grey Room.

Hunter has recently begun a new research project examining the longer history of art insurance from post-Fire London to the United States’ Civil War-era. Collaborating with several international researchers, the project looks ahead to a conference entitled “Art and the Actuarial Imagination” to be held at the Huntington Library in 2020. Hunter’s broader interests range between the early modern period and the contemporary moment to include the meanings of art-historical method and the intertwined histories of art and combustion. His work has been supported by Fonds de recherche du Québec–Société et Culture, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Kress Foundation, Social Science Research Council, and The Courtauld Institute of Art’s Research Forum, among others. His article “Joshua Reynolds’s ‘Nice Chymistry’: Action and Accident in the 1770s” (The Art Bulletin, March 2015) won the College Art Association’s Arthur Kingsley Porter Prize in 2016.